Incidents of police shooting suspects, officers being targeted and changes in technology create a complicated — and, often, increasingly tense — scenario for communities to grapple.
Imagine a close-knit community comprised of residents who have lived there their entire lives. Now, toss in some residents who recently moved there from a much larger city. And some hailing from a one-stoplight town.
Add in residents who arrived just weeks earlier from another country. They probably speak another language, eat different foods and possibly have little knowledge of the laws in the United States — much less Indiana.
Oh, and this population completely resets every nine months or so.
By now, you’ve probably realized the place described is Indiana State. e university with the most diverse residential student body in Indiana is also a cross-section of America: urban and rural students from both privileged and under-served homes; black, white and brown; international and domestic.
“Diverse — there’s got to be a better term to explain just how diverse it is,” said David Barber, a five-year member of the Indiana State University Police Department.
“It’s a dynamic environment. You deal with people of all ages and from all walks of life. The campus is the only arena where you can have that interaction,” said Lt. Tamara McCollough, ’08, who has served the university department for more than a decade.
“I think rural students are welcoming and inviting, and our urban students are a little more conscientious about what is going on around them,” McCollough said. “And as the semester goes on, you’ll see whether they’ll mix together or whether they’ll clash.”
Student conflict is usually worked out with mediation — sitting down and explaining each other’s perspective — and can lead to greater understanding between the two individuals.
Clashing elsewhere in the United States, unfortunately, is not so painlessly resolved. On Feb. 26, 2012, an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. — and picked a national scab of racial wounds. When Zimmerman was acquitted on July 13, 2013, many felt justice had not been done.
Fast-forward to Aug. 9, 2014: Michael Brown, another unarmed black teen, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. Protests and riots ensued — and were reignited when a grand jury decided months later to not prosecute Wilson.
These cases have become a prelude to more killings around the country — that of suspects who never will have a day in court and of police targeted because of their occupation.
“Now it’s like you’re constantly trying to be aware of your surroundings, because you don’t know who’s actually going to be there to support you or who’s just seeing you as a big target,” McCollough said. “We still respond, but we’re not rushing into it. We’re observing the whole situation to figure out the best way to tackle the problem. We don’t want to exacerbate things because tensions are high.”
The university’s unique mix of America’s populations and professionals is working to help make a less violent future.
“On the face of it, people say, ‘If the person doesn’t want to get shot by police, don’t run.’ Or ‘They should just hold their hands up,’” said Lisa Phillips, associate professor of history at Indiana State. “If you’re looking at just one individual interaction, perhaps, but if you’re looking at the entire context surrounding policing, it’s difficult to look at it as a one-on-one interaction. It has a context that is so many years of mistrust. It’s often a white police force policing an all-black community, and there can be this tension that fuels the interaction outside of it.”
Brian Schaefer, assistant professor in State’s criminology and criminal justice department, agrees.
“There’s a lot of historical issues that haven’t been resolved and that continue to be compounded,” he said. “The war on drugs the past 30 years has been particularly detrimental to low-income minority communities. We know, through an extensive amount of research, that persons (whether it’s juveniles or adults) in middle class or upper-middle class areas are not handled in the same way.”
Historians like Phillips study policing through the lens of who’s enforcing the laws and for what purpose.
“We have a tendency, as of late, to tell the story in terms of race alone, but there’s a longer history of policing ‘deviant behavior’ from groups that are often marginal — be it women in a male-dominated hierarchy with the Salem witch trials or immigrants who are newly arrived in the late 1800s and people fear with whom their loyalties lie,” she said.
Later, in the post-Civil War South, chain gangs became a way to control the newly freed slave population and created a workforce to build roads, Phillips said.
In the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin, like many institutions of higher education, was the scene of demonstrations for civil rights and the Vietnam War. The city of Madison’s police force, however, was largely made up of non-college-educated people from the area. They saw the students, who came from all over the country, as invaders when they arrived each fall.
“They were in charge of keeping the peace with a population who they saw as different or bringing with them a sense of elitism,” Phillips said.
“Who’s doing the policing and who’s being policed takes on a broader context often than simply just enforcing laws. That’s what gets missed in much of the debate.”
A return to zero-tolerance policing won’t ease the problems the country is facing, Schaefer predicts.
“It may make people who agree with the politics happy, but it’s not evidence-based in that sense,” he said. “Criminal justice tends to be a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the world. “Ideas of law and order are very attractive to people until it happens to you, right? And then you want the leniency.”
Technology — now in the form of body-mounted cameras — has been viewed as a deterrent to deadly force.
“Body cameras are anything but definitive,” Schaefer said. “Whether it’s through policies that don’t require officers to turn cameras on, the placement of cameras, interactions where cameras can be knocked off — there are going to be those instances where it still isn’t clear what happened.”
Research and laws have yet to catch up with the body cameras’ recent popularity. “There’s a litany of research questions that haven’t been asked yet, haven’t been studied yet — some of those unknown or unintended consequences that we still have to look at,” Schaefer said.
Organizations such as the Police Executive Research Forum are working to prevent the trigger from even being pulled by improving police practices and the way officers are trained. PERF’s “Guiding Principles on Use of Force” calls for deescalating situations so the standard to use force is much higher. Some departments have criticized the plan; others have adopted it.
Indiana State police are working to diversify their force, be transparent with their operations and create more positive encounters in their community by issuing a warning instead of a citation or buying a homeless person a muffin and coffee to warm them up on a cold night.
Like all officers, university police spend most of their time patrolling and interacting with their community of students, faculty and staff. In the past year, they’ve been spending time participating in panel discussions about the Black Lives Matters and Back the Blue movements.
“We’re also trying to teach our students that you can’t take things for face value and believe everything you see in the media — because this is a social media generation — and they’re like, ‘Well, I’ve seen this on this site, it has to be true!’ They’ve got to dig a little deeper and try to discern what’s accurate and what’s not.”
Barber recalled a student locking her keys in her car. She was far from home — and distraught about her mistake.
“‘Hey, why don’t we try to find a screwdriver and take the sunroof off?’” Barber recalled suggesting. “And all was well. We went a little above and beyond, and I feel like maybe that was a situation where somebody could say, ‘Hey, an officer helped me do this,’ you know?”
McCollough describes today’s students as being the “take-charge” generation — and as an opportunity to change the world.
“They want to be the solution, so if we equip them with the right things, then they can help be the solution now. Because at the end of the day, they’re going to be the ones taking care of us,” she said. “If we can help them bridge that gap here and interact, they can take a piece of that back home in their neighborhoods and, hopefully, it will expand.
“And we learn a lot from them, too — as far as the different lingos, the trends,” she added. “Sometimes we’re like ‘Hey, what is that? What is this Snapchat thing?’ and then they’re excited. They’re like ‘What? You don’t know?’ So they like the fact that they can teach us something, too.”